LATELY I’VE BEEN READING the legend of Parzival as told by Wolfram von Eschenbach. It’s a story from the 12th century about a callow lad who feels called to be a knight, and his quest for the Holy Grail. His path takes many twists and turns in which he gets himself and the people he meets into a lot of trouble. On his journey from “dullness to doubt to blessedness” he tends to get distracted, depressed, and even to forget that he’s on a quest. Eventually, through a series of encounters with people who love him, or want to destroy him, Parzival learns to love, is redeemed, and accomplishes his quest, which was his destiny all along. Can you relate? I do.
My life path has taken many twists and turns. I can say now, with the benefit of hindsight, that I was “called” to study architecture, then macrobiotics, then acupuncture, then to go into publishing, and more recently, to teach. And I was called to two challenging yet blessed marriages and to fathering four beautiful sons. In retrospect, there was a sense of destiny to each relationship and path taken, even the painful ones, like my brush with cancer at 21, a failed first marriage, financial setbacks, and my burned-out departure from the Utne Reader five years ago. Each always seemed to lead to the right next step.
None of the paths I’ve taken was chosen through a rational decision-making process. In fact, my decision-making process has had very little to do with what I’ve actually done with my life. Usually, I get some intuition, then a series of synchronicities affirms my intuition, then, and only then, do I begin to think that a decision is called for, so I start making lists and columns of pros and cons. That’s when the trouble starts.
Like most Baby Boomers, I’m addicted to having options. We call it “freedom.” The American way. No limits. Keep all possibilities open at all times. We want A and B. “When faced with a choice, always take both,” was the motto I lived by for most of my life. But this attachment to keeping all my options open was killing me. When I had to make major life choices, the decision-making process always became terribly fraught and portentous. Behind one door stood the tiger and behind the other, hopefully, the lady in white (but more likely, a gorilla). I usually worked myself into a bundle of competing contradictions until I collapsed into a twitching puddle of indecision, letting “life” somehow decide for me.
I don’t believe callings are arrived at by weighing endless columns of pros and cons. They are apprehended via a different organ of perception than the rational mind. Callings come through the heart. I left the magazine five years ago to, “find, feel, and follow my heart.” Then I discovered my feelings. The problem is, I made some terrible decisions based on my feelings, mostly because I tend to confuse the obsessive pull of cravings for higher callings. Whenever I follow my rational mind or my heart, one to the exclusion of the other, I make mistakes. It seems, however, that when feelings of my heart permeate and warm my thoughts, I make better decisions. Working together, my heart and mind form a kind of inner gyroscope that keeps me more intuitively balanced and on track. I’ve been learning to listen to this inner gyroscope, and to distinguish its common-sense, intuitive wisdom from the chattering voices in my head and the trance-inducing tugs of my desires.
Looking back over my 56 years on this planet I see themes and patterns emerging. Why was I drawn repeatedly to certain types of people and situations? Life, it seems to me, is a set-up, putting you in situations perfectly designed (by whom?) for you to learn the lessons you need to learn, until you learn them. Plato said that life is a school for the “tendance of the soul.” If you don’t learn your lessons now, you will be called upon, over and over again, until you do. These lessons often involve facing up to the pain you’ve caused others and making amends.
One recent decision that I can unselfconsciously claim as a calling was my leap into teaching. I never intended to teach, but I literally got the “call” a couple of years ago when two teachers from my children’s Waldorf school cornered me at a party and exclaimed, “Eric. You should teach!” I laughingly brushed them off. “No way!” But a seed was planted, and over the next few days the thought of teaching at my kids’ school turned over and over in my mind. When I was honest with myself I realized that something inside me had leaped forward in response to their challenge, declaring, “Yes! I should teach! I want to teach! If it’s right, I will teach!”
Five days after the party I found myself being interviewed by the school’s teacher search committee. I told them that I wanted to be of service, and if the committee determined that I was the right person for the class, I would be delighted to serve. Then I suggested something that a few years before would have been too hokey to even imagine–that we all meditate on the question together. We lit a candle, closed our eyes, and sat in silence. I asked my heart whether it was right for the class (and me), and the “greater good,” that I be their teacher. I looked inside and listened for any inner green lights or warning bells. I got a kind of golden inner glow, which seemed to shout a resounding “Yeah!” When we opened our eyes we all agreed that it “felt right” that I would be the coming fall’s seventh-grade class teacher.
After two years of teaching I graduated with my class last spring. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life and my work has never been so rewarding. Now I’m listening for my next calling. I’m grateful that I have the financial resources and support from family and friends to explore what to do next. I know this is a privilege that many people do not share.
I’m deep in “don’t know,” but strangely calm, more curious and interested than anxious about what’s next. I’m listening as deeply as I can, paying attention to synchronicities, to song fragments and random comments that move me, to my memories and dreams, and I’m reflecting on the needs I see around me, via news items in the media and through direct requests from my family and friends, and complete strangers. And, like Parzival, I’m learning to ask, “What ails thee?” and how can I help? I really don’t know what’s next, but feel confident that whatever it is, it will be a calling.
Eric Utne is the founder of Utne Reader. In the summer of 2000, while in the midst of an extended sabbatical, he accepted an invitation to become the seventh-grade class teacher at City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis. He completed his assignment last June and is now in search of his next “calling.”